Sunday, March 20, 2011

Decisions in Annapolis

The legislative session each year in Maryland is a period of three frenetic months during which there are many hearings on proposed legislation Frequently there is prolonged public discussion about bills, while many citizens wander the halls of power to lobby about their interests or noisily rally on lobby night (Monday evenings) in Lawyers Square to promote their causes. Elected officials attend forums, speak at civic events and update constituents about progress of particular bills. Many senators and delegates send frequent letters and emails explaining their votes and receive communications in return. Maryland has what is termed a citizen or part-time legislature -- although their duties extend throughout the year after the session, many officials have other jobs the remainder of the year and all are only paid for part-time service.

Despite improvements in recent years, the legislative process is not as transparent as it might be. Often bills are amended with intent to dilute or defeat them. Other times, committee members do not allow bills to pass out of committee, so the public never gets the opportunity to hear a free debate on the merits of the issue at hand. Sometimes, to the view of the public, committees deal with matters that seem to have little actual bearing on their mandate, but such is the governance of our state. Committee Chairs in Annapolis have a lot of power and are seldom reticent in establishing their control as they perceive it. Montgomery County has worked hard to continue to keep local officials in these positions once obtained. Currently the county has one Senate Chair -- Brian Frosh, who leads the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Three senators from the county are on that committee. Three other senators from Montgomery County serve on the Budget and Taxation Committee. In the House of Delegates our one chair is Sheila Hixson, who leads the powerful Ways and Means Committee -- a total of five county delegates sit on that committee. Ways and Means and Judicial proceedings, where Kathleen Dumais is Vice-chair, have the highest percentage memberships on any committee for Montgomery County with five delegates serving on each. Chairs are allocated by the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House. The majority party in charge makes the choices, so Maryland committee chairs are all Democratic elected officials.

Given this background, bills raise and dash hopes as they proceed through the legislative process. A bill passes the Senate, only to stall in the House. Bills pass but are amended and must be reconsidered. A flurry of legislation becomes a blizzard by the final days of the session when there is little time for modification, mediation or considered deliberation. Sometimes, as a result, good bills die and bad legislation succeeds. The attitude in Annapolis seems to be: "we’ll fix it next year." There must be a more logical way to run a state, but it has not yet surfaced.

A look at the status of several bills considered progressive in the so-called "blue state" of Maryland should give us all pause and perhaps compel us to go back and look at candidate promises made during campaigns and perhaps spur some action to hold our elected officials to their public statements. Many voters have certain interests that make them choose one candidate over another. For me, for example, a candidate who supports renewable energy and voices concern for environmental issues might be favored over one thought to be in the pocket of those not favoring EPA safety concerns. Voters weigh candidates on multiple issues often giving more weight to issues close to home. Some voters are single issue voters such as on women's choices or school vouchers. Those voters may not investigate other positions their chosen candidate has taken and may subsequently be poorly informed voters. Some voters address ethnic or religious similarities and vote for a candidate on perceived shared interests or identities. Voting is often emotional, rather than rational. (Was Scott Brown chosen as a U.S. Senator (R-MA) for his choice of party, his intellectual prowess, work ethic or "star quality" as a former model?)

Recently I joined many progressive groups as we journeyed to Annapolis to hold the first Progressive Summit. We also rallied, lobbied, heard from and presented our issues to state elected officials. We, who were from Montgomery, Howard, Baltimore and Prince George's Counties, were assured by most that they supported our concerns. However a recent check on some of the measures does not hold a lot of hope for their passage.

Dream Act -- has passed the Senate and awaits a decision by the House of Delegates. It seems to have momentum this year. Maybe it will make it. It appears that it will get no Republican support.

Wind Power -- supported by the Governor, seemed to be on the inside track but has run out of steam and opposition is gathering. I am hopeful that the concerns over nuclear energy may give this a much needed boost.

Combined Reporting -- would bring in revenue in a year when revenues are hurting; opposed by the Chambers of Commerce, large businesses who avoid Maryland taxes and the Examiner papers. For it: many small businesses based here who already pay their fair share of taxes to the state. It is said that it sometimes takes several years to pass a bill in Annapolis. It is looking doubtful also for this one.

Marriage Equality -- was passed by the Senate and released from committee to await a House of Delegates vote when some Delegates got cold feet and despite eloquent pleas from gay members, a vote was avoided. It has now been sent back to await a future reprieve, maybe next year. Personally, despite the merits of the bill -- which I support -- I think it will be skipped next year as no Democrats want to give the national opponents of this bill a reason to storm into the blue state of Maryland for a gay marriage referendum vote in a Presidential election year. For those Delegates who sponsored the bill, and others who ran on support of this and backed out, I do hope the voters have good and long memories. Too often politicians expect that votes taken are easily forgotten; here, votes avoided should be remembered.

Health care -- Maryland single payer is not happening. Small incremental reforms may yet happen. Certainly Maryland is one of the states going forward with Medicaid expansion. But as one who supports a national single payer program, I do wish that this state had shown the way.

Other issues apparently not happening which should: campaign finance reform, alcohol tax, gas tax, pension stability.

I'd love to hear from you about measures which should have been considered but weren't, or which you feel should not have passed but did.

I’ve gone out on a limb with my prognostications here -- let's hear yours.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The ICC and us

Do you live in the upper part of Montgomery County? Have you driven or ridden on the newly opened Intercounty Connector (MD 200) since it opened last week? If so, please share some of your experiences with this blog. I'd love to hear from you! My experiences are reported below.

As most of you know, I am a resident of Olney, Maryland. As such I have watched the ICC grow from the moving mounds of dirt a few short years ago once Governor O'Malley gave it the green light. However, since I have opposed this road for most of my more than 30 years residence in this county, I have not celebrated this new highway. Last week saw state and county leaders congregate to cut the ribbon and applaud this long trumpeted construction. Billions of dollars have been borrowed to pay for this road. Our transportation funds are now tapped out. But will the road address its promise? We were told that the local roads would be freed of the commuters and cut through traffic and large trucks would now have a way to reach BWI and Route 95. However with only a third of this road now opened, this is a question which remains to be answered. The environmental compromises promised bike lanes and express buses and monitoring of air quality and stream valley runoffs. To this date, the water quality has been an ongoing problem and noise and pollution remain current concerns. The bike lanes were reduced due to supposed cost restraints. The express buses to BWI/Marshall Airport and Fort Meade are starting up now.

However, in an attempt to be objective, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I drove onto I-270 northbound, exited onto a very bumpy I-370 near Shady Grove Road and arrived unceremoniously onto the new Route 200. I traveled across nearly empty lanes which were smooth and gently curved as they crossed rolling hills. The unexpected tunnel was bright and attractive. Natural hues were displayed across miles of unnatural sound barrier walls. The signage and exit lane warnings were not as clear as they might have been. Surprisingly large overhead automatic toll collectors loomed ominously across the roadways; one is on notice that these will not be avoided. State Police cars blinked their displeasure as the patrols ticketed traffic offenders. Wide open roads seem like such an invitation to speed, but they are most definitely not. The journey was over in just a few minutes as I exited smoothly onto Route 97 north. For your information, the speed limit is 55, which seems painfully slow for such low traffic volume.

But as bucolic as this ride was, a glance along the route showed the cost. The roadside was populated by mini-trees which had replaced vibrant long standing forests. The deforestation was extensive and appeared excessive. Thick underbrush which previously provided habitat for many small animals had disappeared. The area is now left even more vulnerable to flooding and storm water runoff. The parklands of Lake Needwood were bisected. Farms and homes, former meadows and hills were no longer. Social costs to neighborhoods along the route are yet to be measured as some homes and neighborhoods were isolated and walled off. Although construction has ceased, the drone of traffic will continue to intrude upon sleeping and waking hours for those along the routes.

True, the road was opened before it is completed. Some may even say it is not yet ready and the rush to open was premature. Many in Olney requested that the local portion of the road opening be delayed until the entire route was finished. The community was told that the traffic urgency was too great to leave unabated. Now, this community has seen some of its worst dreams borne out. Traffic along the local roads at rush hours is not improved. It is far worse than promised. The northbound merge lanes along Georgia Avenue at the entrance to 200 west bound are confusing, poorly striped, and dimly illuminated. Last week was problematic as local road travelers and exiting drivers all jockeyed for some of the same landscape. Drivers facing the ICC entrance suddenly scrambled right as they did not wish to enter the highway. Northbound evening traffic was backed up almost a mile, south of Norbeck Road at Georgia Avenue and gridlock was the order of the day. Granted there has been significant email dialogue, on-site monitoring and communication with the administrators of the State Highway Administration and the ICC project staff, but even they admitted that the snafus of last week were unexpected. The blame was placed on poor traffic control by the county and malfunctioning traffic cameras, also under county control. But those were not the only problems. Better striping, lighting and signage are promised and some improvements are said to be occurring soon.

WTOP radio has reported that the ICC is significantly underperforming traffic count expectations on these opening days. In these free two week trial periods traffic has averaged around 30,000 cars per day. The big rigs, which were expected to easily pay the toll fees have not yet materialized in large numbers. These drivers must realize that despite the promised seven minutes travel time from Shady Grove to Norbeck, the route then means an extra 30 minutes on local roads, and with gas prices spiking lately, they may not wish to sit longer in traffic. Commuters are also doing the math. One of my co-workers travels from Rockville to Columbia daily. Just this small stretch of road would cost her more than $60.00 a month if she traveled both ways at rush hour, and she still would have to pay the MD transponder fee and surcharges. Is it any wonder that many have called this highway the Lexus road?

The road is here to stay and we as taxpayers will be paying for it for a long time. It appears to me that we need to be vigilant, keep our eyes on what is said and then done and keep our eyes on the road. The second portion is due to open within the year if all goes well. It is possible that local traffic will abate by then. I am counting on each of you to keep us all apprised of the saga of the ICC as it unfolds throughout the next few months.